Playwright, author and visual artist Tom Block began writing plays a few years ago. His work immediately attracted the attention of Wanderlust Theater Lab’s founder Roselie Vasquez-Yetter. She led Tom’s first play, White Noise through a series of readings and then to production last June. She is currently bringing Tom’s second play, Butterfly, to the stage this February 15-23, in Takoma Park, MD.
First, we asked Roselie why she was interested in working with Tom.Then, we posed a couple of questions to Tom. The interviews are followed by a biography of Tom’s professional work over the past two decades.
Roselie, what is it about Tom Block’s work that attracted you? And why did you decide to make him your first Playwright-in-Residence?
The moment I read a working draft of Tom’s play White Noise, I was blown away by the content. I couldn’t believe it was his first play and I immediately wanted to read more. After almost two decades in the theater, I was surprised that a novel playwright would be able to do two things so effectively: 1) Make complex overlapping and controversial themes accessible without preaching to the audience and 2) Blend real and imaginary characters seamlessly and seductively.
I immediately agreed work with him on another staged reading of the piece to iron out remaining kinks and our collaborative process was born. After that work, I was “hooked” and invited Tom to be the Playwright-in-Residence at Wanderlust. I committed to incubating and producing all three plays of his first trilogy (White Noise, which we are taking to New York’s Theater for the New City in June-July, 2013; Butterfly, which opens in Takoma Park in February and Night Out in Spain, which we are planning to read for the first time at the Kennedy Center’s “Page-to-Stage” Festival next September) through the same iterative and experimental process. We’ve been digging into his work ever since then.
Another central element to these works are the multi-media dimension that Tom’s plays inspire. We use of a cello (and in the third play, the cellist herself) as a character in the plays. We were fortunate to be connected with an emerging young cellist named Desiree Miller who composed the score for White Noise and performed as the only sound elements outside of the actors in the play. It was thrilling to weave the instrument into the work and we are collaborating again with Desiree on Butterfly. Tom’s paintings form the backdrop to the trilogy as well, setting the tone for the pieces and reflecting the psychological state of the lead protagonist (or antagonist, the audience will decide).
These elements make Tom’s plays an immersive experience of the senses and create a new aspect to the theatrical production process that is totally new to me and which I find fully satisfying. There is so much depth to his writing, but Tom deftly manages to inform us of historical, spiritual, political realities through juxtaposition with absurdity, humor and witty dialogue. Despite their intricacy, we always feel like we can follow the thread, even if it’s multifaceted and covers topics that challenge our assumptions.
Tom is a brilliant artist and I’m so proud that Wanderlust Theater Lab is the vehicle that is introducing his plays to the world.
Tom, tell us about how you got into playwriting? From what we understand, you came to this media a bit later in life than one might expect.
I did come to theater a bit later in life. From my mid-20s until my mid-40s, I was essentially a visual artist, a painter. I exhibited in museums, universities and galleries around the United States, Canada and Europe. I developed an activist art theory (Prophetic Activist Art) which I lectured on; based my work in mystical and activist themes and built a solid art career.
In theater, I found by far the most exciting and rewarding of the various media I have worked in. Not only can I treat the themes (mystical, religious, sexual, psychological, pathological etc.) that I have been reading and creating art about for the past 20 years, but I also found an incredibly satisfying presentation experience. That is to say: there is no buzz and audience attention that I, personally, have experienced that is more rewarding than in the theater.
After having spent 20 years at art openings for my work, where a bunch of disinterested people stood with their backs to my paintings and talked about the quality of the wine being served, the experience of an audience that was riveted to the work during its production and then arguing about its meaning and even quality afterward was novel for me.
Additionally, having been fortunate enough to find Wanderlust and Roselie’s deft direction of my plays, and the interweaving of music, dance, my art and other theatrical aspects has greatly enhanced by work — as well as opened up new creative possibilities for future plays.
What are your plans and projects upcoming?
Well, in terms of plays, I have been on fire. I have finished six plays, writing myself out to the edge of the theatrical experience. The final two of these six — a Biology (two plays that are organically linked, but don’t necessarily follow one after the other) entitled Airport Shuttle and Airport, have little plot or character development, shatter the fourth wall and involve the director as a frustrated leader trying to maintain control of the play. I wanted to see how far “out” in the theatrical hinterlands I could voyage before turning around, re-forming the fourth wall and rebuilding ideas such as plot and character development.
My seventh play is a historical piece about a friend of mine, Adil Awadh, who was an Iraqi resistance fighter against Saddam Hussein, was evacuated by the United States government as an ally (in 1996) and then accused of crimes against America and imprisoned in the American Southwest for a couple of years. Eventually, due to the direct intervention of ex-FBI head James Woolsey, he was released, but has continued to live in a legal limbo for the past decade. This play will highlight his Kafka-esque plight, as well as deal with issues such as patriotism, justice and the inhumanity of bureaucracies.
I also have three different books wending their way toward publication (the next published book will be Prophetic Activist Art: A Handbook for a Spiritual Revolution, which is my handbook/manifesto for my model of activist art and due out next summer). I also continue to exhibit my artwork and speak about my ideas at various venues.
Lastly, I should note that I have applied to a few MFA Playwriting programs in New York, but I won’t know if that pans out for a few months yet.
For more information about my work and upcoming events, please visit my website.
His art has been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States and Europe. He has been awarded monetary grants and other support from the Norman Lear Family Foundation (CA), Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation (NY), Sugarman Foundation(CA), Nelson Talbott Foundation (MD), Puffin Foundation (NJ), New York Foundation for the Arts (NY), Maryland State Arts Council(MD), William and Mary Greve Foundation (NY), Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County (MD) and Amnesty International (NY).
He has spoken about his theories of using art as an activist tool at conferences and universities, including: Al-Azhar University(Cairo), Irish Centre for Human Rights (Galway, Ireland), Depaul University (IL), Villanova University (PA), Xavier University (OH),University of Arkansas (AR), Ohio University (OH), Fetzer Institute (MI), Manhattan College (NY), Vanderbilt University (TN),University of Calgary (Canada), Institute of Art (Birmingham, England), Emory University (GA), Grand Valley State University (MI),American Popular Culture Association, Mid Atlantic Popular Culture Association, International Peace Research Association and at other universities and conferences around the world.
His first book, Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity, which traces the influence of Sufism (Islamic mysticism) on the direction of Jewish spirituality over the course of 1000 years, was published in Fall 2010 in the United States (Fons Vitae, Louisville, KY) and Turkey (Bilim Artı Gönül Yayıncılık Ltd. Şti., Istanbul, Turkey). “A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God” was published this fall (2012) by Algora Publisher (NY) and his novel The Fool Returns will be published in Turkey this spring (2013). His first play, White Noise was produced in Washington D.C. last June, and will be produced in New York next summer, as a Resident Theater Production of Theater for the New City, in the East Village. His second play, Butterfly, will have its world premier in February 2013, in Takoma Park, MD.